Today’s guest poster is the lovely Jasmine Shea Townsend, author of Fairy Tales and Space Dreams, who discusses the issue of black women being erased from Fantasy & Sci-fi fiction and how to correct it.
I have always been fascinated by fantasy, by magic and castles, dragons and princesses. One of the first stories I wrote in elementary school was a tale about an elf and a unicorn.
My elf character, whose name I have long forgotten, was pale-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes because that’s what I thought elves were supposed to look like. It wasn’t until years had passed that I began to wonder why no one in the fantasy worlds I loved so much looked like me.
These days, I’ve come to realize that the virtual non-existence of black women in fantasy (and, to a smaller extent, science fiction) doesn’t necessarily come from a conscious malicious intent. Simply, no one thinks to include us.
Sometimes, a black character appears, but there is only one (in other words, a token) and he is usually male.
In this way, black women are typically barred from having access to fantastic realms and space adventures, and virtually no one seems to notice but us black women. No one thinks of us as love interests or princesses or fairies – and these were all things a younger me so desperately wanted to see.
Whenever I read or watched fantasy anything, even if I enjoyed it, it sent the message that I and girls who looked like me were not considered desirable or good enough to be included.
So, let’s go back to my elf character. For most of my childhood, I wrote elves who were pale with long, straight blonde or red hair.
I saw Legolas in the Lord of the Rings movies and swooned with the rest of the girls. And, although I still appreciate a young Orlando Bloom as a hot, blond elf, I realize I have a bit of a bone to pick with Tolkien.
Well, not Tolkien himself, but his ghost. The apparition of grandfather Tolkien haunts the fantasy genre even today, as many of us fantasy writers are still head-over-heels in love with Middle Earth and his depiction of elves. (If you’ve ever seen Bright on Netflix, you’ll notice, too, that being an elf meant being pale with Eurocentric features.)
Because of this, a lot of fantasy stories still take place in Medieval England or Renaissance Europe, or similarly based settings. But this is fantasy! I feel like so many of us are stuck in these sorts of classic realms when we could be writing, I don’t know, dragons in space.
My first suggestion to fix this issue would be to change the setting or create your own entirely. I’m not saying you should never base any regions in your world off of Europe – I still do sometimes! – but there are so many other parts of the world to research and explore and use as a foundation for your fantasy worlds.
If you’re steadfastly married to the idea of a Tolkien-like setting, though, it’s worth noting that black women did, in fact, exist in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (although obviously not in large numbers), so it wouldn’t be all that strange to include them.
One of my favorite examples of black women in historical England, although this occurs during the Victorian era, is the story of Sara Forbes Bonetta, a West African princess who was orphaned by tribal warfare and subsequently adopted by Queen Victoria herself.
Often, if I managed to find dark-skinned elves, they were, much to my dismay, gray or purple (still with Eurocentric features) and always evil.
But again, fantasy is what you make it! If we can write griffins and wizards, then, surely, writing in characters with Afrocentric features is a reasonable feat. That the world is what you make it is precisely what makes the fantasy genre so alluring!
However, I will concede that the idea of representation does become a little complicated when you’re trying to portray a world much like our own – with its existing cultures and social issues – as pertains to science fiction and urban fantasy.
Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy:
I find the lack of black women in science fiction is especially interesting because it conforms to the notion that black people don’t have a future, that we aren’t allowed to dream of a future of our own.
There is where Afrofuturism come in to play – providing a future through the lens of the African diaspora, as opposed to the white Western perspective that we’re used to. The future can be black.
And the best example of our time is Wakanda in Black Panther. When we flew to the theaters in droves, we saw ourselves in these characters – smart, beautiful, witty, dynamic – flourishing and free from the taint of colonialism.
The one caveat is that we shouldn’t look to Black Panther as the end-all, be-all of black representation in science fiction because Wakanda, unlike, say, the United States, has never experienced systematic racial oppression and is therefore devoid of the traumas that come with it.
That’s the hard part. Writing in a dark-skinned Afrocentric princess is easy in a made-up fantasy world.
We’re people – just write us as people. It’s a different story, though, when you’re writing a science fiction story that takes place some years in the future of this world. When writing marginalized people in this situation, representation is difficult and requires research.
So, when writers tell me they’re afraid of backlash for misrepresenting marginalized groups, I can understand.
Many people portray black women as hard, fierce, and loud, but it’s important to note that we’re not a monolith. We’re so much more than that.
These stereotypes stem from the fact that Western society has historically denied us conventional femininity (slave women were expected to work as hard as the men; black mothers post-slavery had to work to support their families since the fathers didn’t bring home enough income for black mothers to be housewives; black men are incarcerated at an unfairly high percentage, forcing black mothers to develop a “strong” persona; etc.), but we can still be soft, cute, nerdy, awkward, elegant, or graceful.
And, to be completely honest, we are tired of being:
1. the one-dimensional “strong” girl,
2. the wise old woman who helps the white protagonist, or
3. the black friend who sacrifices herself for the white protagonist.
We are multidimensional and we want to exist for ourselves, not as someone’s stepping stone to success.
Recommendations and Conclusion
I realize I’ve just dumped a boatload of information upon you, but I will recommend to you two shows, a graphic novel, and a YA fantasy novel that will help you digest everything I’ve just said.
For watching references, I recommend “Black Girl in a Big Dress” (about a black woman who is an Anglophile and LARPs as a Victorian lady) and “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” (which is exactly what it sounds like), both of which are available on YouTube.
Adorned by Chi also has a wonderful manga series about a black magical girl, a “painfully shy Nigerian college student who discovers she has Goddess-like powers.” This you can purchase at comic.adornedbychi.com.
And fantasy novel Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is another wonderful example that showcases interesting and dynamic black female protagonists, Zelie and Amari.
Bonus: I’m also particularly fond of genius tech-savvy black girls such as Effie from the game Overwatch and Princess Shuri from Black Panther. And if you haven’t seen the 1997 classic, Cinderella, starring Brandy herself as the iconic princess, go do that right now. It’s the only version of Cinderella in the past three decades that matters.
And those are only a few examples. I challenge you to find more.
Of course, I’m not saying every single story ever has to have black women in it. I’m just saying, it would be nice for writers to acknowledge that we exist, we are diverse, and, darn it, we want to dispel the silly notion that we don’t enjoy fantasy or science fiction!
And if, after reading this, you’re still afraid of backlash, just know that you can suffer a backlash from anything as a creative, not just from representing people of color and other marginalized groups.
I believe that, yes, if we want to see ourselves in these stories, we ought to write them ourselves.
But sometimes… we just want to read them, to watch them – we want them to already exist, which means we can’t be the only ones to think of including women who look like us.
With proper care and sensitivity (and research!), you’ll do just fine.
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Jasmine was born in Toledo, Ohio on 5 July 1992. She was almost born on the 4th of July, but life isn’t always fair.
She received her BA in 2013 from The University of Toledo with a major in creative writing and a minor in Japanese. In 2015, she earned her MA in English literature from The University of Toledo as well.
She currently lives in Ohio with her boyfriend and two mischievous cats, Tantan and Lulu (short for Lucrezia Borgia).
She enjoys ballroom dancing, ballet, video games, j-fashion (especially Fairy Kei and Lolita), working out, reading, and, of course, writing.
Fairy Tales and Space Dreams
Delve into faraway lands and galaxies with these whimsical fantasy and science fiction tales, from vivid fairy tale reimaginings to a mermaid falling in love with a star, to lively trips across the wide expanse of the cosmos.
Join the likes of Sophie the space unicorn and Rapunzel the Night Maiden on their adventures and journeys full of discovery (and plenty of mishaps!).
Pre-order the book (release date 15th June 2019)
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Big thanks to Jasmine for sharing her insight into this important issue. Please check out her links and if you have any questions for Jasmine, please drop them in the comments section below.